Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Identity is a Complex Mix of Part Russian, Part Jewish

April 1, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

On the weeks his Baba Sofa could afford it, Bentsion Boverman rode the streetcar from college into Odessa’s busiest market to buy his grandmother a live chicken for Shabbat.

Pickings were slim by the time he reached the Privoz market those Friday afternoons at the dawn of the 1970s. He’d shell out about 25 rubles — roughly 20 percent of the average monthly Soviet salary at the time — and stuff the bird into his leather satchel.

Because live chickens in streetcars were frowned upon, he carried the fowl by foot to the kosher slaughterer a mile away, then watched his grandmother turn it into chicken soup in the family kitchen.

“It was a schlep!” Boverman says with a laugh in a telephone interview from Boston, where he is chief financial officer of an engineering software company.

It was also the osmosis through which Boverman, now 54, and thousands of other Russian-speaking American Jews attained their Jewish identity under Soviet rule.

Now, more than a quarter of a century after the first wave of Soviet Jews arrived in America and some 13 years after the mass exodus that followed the collapse of communism, the Jewish identity of Jews from the former Soviet Union is far more complex.

Like Boverman, who landed in West Hartford, Conn., in 1977, most Soviet Jews picked up pieces of Judaism from their grandparents. The elder generation offered them a smattering of Hebrew or Yiddishkeit, but most of their Judaism was squelched by the Communist state.

The rest of their Jewish education came by way of anti-Semitism and state policy: the peers who bullied them, the teachers who failed them and the stamps of “Jewish” on their passports.

Mostly because of that oppression, the Soviet Jews who immigrated to America are deeply identified as Jewish.

But their Judaism takes a different form from mainstream American Judaism, where the synagogue is the center of observance and communal life, and people are mostly open about their Judaism, whether or not they practice Jewish rituals.

Ask a Russian American Jew to describe his Jewish identity and he typically will talk in secular terms — describing a culture borne of persecution or an abiding love for Israel, where perhaps half the family now lives.

But after years of immigration and growth, Jews from the former Soviet Union – – now estimated at between 600,000 to 800,000 — are becoming increasingly interested in religion and organized Jewish life.

That sometimes happens together, but more often apart, from the rest of organized Jewish life.

Of course, the community’s Jewish identity is diverse, with a small percentage of observant Jews and a sizable minority exploring the religion long denied them. In recent years, for example, several synagogues serving primarily Russian-speaking Jews have sprouted around the country.

According to Sam Kliger, coordinator of the American Jewish Committee’s department of Russian Jewish community affairs, Russian American Jews who have lived here for more than nine years are more likely to attend synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, donate to Jewish causes, especially a synagogue, and show interest in Judaism and Jewish life than those who have been here less time.

Since two-thirds of the Russian-speaking Jewish population in America came here in the 1990s, the community is now reaching that critical turning point, Kliger says.

But they face steep challenges, according to Russian-speaking Jews and those who work with the community.

Among them are a dearth of affordable Jewish education, institutions and Russian-born religious leadership, as well as a residual Soviet mentality that keeps religion at bay.

For example, paying for synagogue membership was a turn-off for many newcomers, given that Soviet-era services were free. They also were reluctant to join Jewish organizations that reminded them of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Also, the American Jewish groups that received them focused primarily on social, not religious absorption.

In liberating refuseniks — Jews denied the right to emigrate under the Soviet system — the motto was “Let my people go,” not “Let my people know,” says Rabbi Aryeh Katzin, dean of Sinai Academy, a Russian Jewish yeshiva in Brooklyn and editor of the newspaper “Evreisky Mir,” Russian for “the Jewish world.”

In addition, Russian Jews retained a culture that looked down upon religion.

“There is a big-time paranoia” against religion, says Rabbi Pinchus Bobrosky, a Russian-born rabbi in the densely populated Russian-speaking Jewish community in the Brighton Beach section of New York.

Russian Jews were weaned, he says, on Lenin’s mantra: “Religion is the opium for the masses.”

The Soviets tried to create “Jewish anti-Semites,” Bobrosky says, adding that to a certain extent, they succeeded. Gary Shteyngart emphasizes the point in his acclaimed Russian Jewish immigrant novel, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” in which protagonist Vladimir Girshkin is chided by his mother for walking “like a Jew”: “How can a woman love a man who walks like a Jew?” says his mother, who affectionately nicknames her husband “Stalin.” Still, as Kliger says, the longer Jews from the former Soviet Union are here, the more Americanized they become and the more likely they are to adopt religious practice and an overt Jewish identity.

When Julian Abrams immigrated to New York in 1989, he was struck by the sight of Jews observing a holiday. Driving along a Brooklyn street, he saw a Jewish promenade — his first time seeing Jews “so openly enjoying their Jewishness,” he says. “I cried inside,” says Abrams, who is not religious.

Among the Russian Jews here who have adopted religion, many have found a home in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Its appeal, they say, stems from its welcoming attitude — coupled with free activities.

Rabbi Shmuel Notik, who heads Chabad’s outreach to Russian Jews in Illinois, estimates that as many as 150,000 Russian Jews across the country are affiliated with the movement.

“They like to hear that despite the fact that they don’t have any background, nonetheless Chabad accepts them” and “gives them a chance to grow in their Jewishness,” Notik says.

While many Russian Jews attend High Holiday services, they generally practice a brand of Judaism from an era prohibiting it: They piece together fragments of secular Jewish knowledge to constitute practice and identity.

Take Svetlana Boym’s family. At the family’s Passover seders, her mother sometimes reads stories by Isaac Babel instead of the Haggadah.

“My mother wanted to keep the tradition, but she doesn’t have a proper Jewish education, so she felt that reading the works of the beloved Russian Jewish writer will be appropriate for the holiday,” says the Harvard professor of Slavic studies.

Russian Jewish holidays essentially are social events, festooned with Russian fare like caviar and smoked fish, says Stanley Trepetin, 35, an MIT graduate student, who grew up in Brooklyn. “Rarely do you ever have prayers,” he says.

In fact, he says, most Russian Jews congregate at Russian events, not Jewish ones, where traditional Russian trivia games and talk of vodka take center stage.

Retaining their Russian identity is a priority for many who immigrated in the 1990s, says Pnina Levermore, executive director for the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, in San Francisco.

It’s not so much a security blanket but something “which defined them back there, which kind of makes them feel planted here,” she says.

That steeps the community in its own brand of Jewish culture — often detached from religion.

“They’ll raise their kids never setting foot in a temple, but God forbid you want to marry someone not Jewish,” says Victoria Weesies, 38, who emigrated to Orange County, Calif., in 1975.

The community’s youth, more Americanized and with more opportunities than their parents had to pursue Judaism, represent a more religious segment of Russian Jewish society, most say.

Ironically, however, some think that these young people, lacking their parents fear of being Jewish, will lose their Jewish identity altogether.

Because Russian Jews see Jewish identity as ethnic, they bequeath their children a Judaism with “nothing really attached to it,” says Andre Krug, director of services for New Americans at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia.

For those working to cultivate Jewish identity among Russian American Jews, they craft strategies to appeal to their specific concerns. For example, Krug has drawn many to Jewish events by focusing on culture and rejecting fees for services.

Rabbi Marc Schneier of The Hampton Synagogue, perched in the tony weekend area of Long Island, N.Y., which has seen the trickling in of Russian Jewish congregants, aims to respond to the immigrants’ desire to fit in with American culture.

“Our challenge is to show the greater Russian Jewish community that you can be a successful and very fulfilled American, and at the same time you can be a practicing Jew,” he says.

While Russian American Jews seem “almost devoid of religious observance,” Katzin says, they are slowly returning to their Jewish roots.

A rabbi from an assimilated family, Katzin says the “flame of a Jew” persists, despite the “cultural genocide” of Jewish life in Russia. “One explanation,” he says, is “Am Yisrael chai.”

Recommended from JTA